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HER Number:MDV10030
Name:Countess Wear Bridge, Exeter


Countess Wear Bridge was originally built in 1770 on the site of medieval ford. It was widened in the 1930s. It was used, together with the swing bridge over the canal just to the south-west, for training British paratroops prior to D-Day in 1944.


Grid Reference:SX 941 895
Map Sheet:SX98NW
Admin AreaDevon
Civil ParishExeter
Ecclesiastical ParishEXETER

Protected Status

Other References/Statuses

  • National Monuments Record: SX 98 NW 1
  • Old DCC SMR Ref: SX98NW/21
  • Old Listed Building Ref (II)
  • Pastscape: 447882
  • Tide Project: 15/05/2020

Monument Type(s) and Dates

  • ROAD BRIDGE (Built, XVIII to Late 20th Century - 1770 AD to 2000 AD (Between))

Full description

Ancient Monuments, Countess Wear Bridge, 137 (Schedule Document). SDV25114.

The late medieval stone bridge that crossed the branches of the Exe and the lowlands of the valley consisted of seven pointed arches. It stood at the head of the tideway of the river and the haven of Exeter (until the reign of Elizabeth) was in the pool below the bridge. In two places the original bridge has been broken by the insertion of modern arches. The weir, after which the bridge was named, was put up by Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon in 1284. The bridge probably dates from the 15th century.
[The information derives from the scheduling document, which firmly states that it refers to 'Countess Wear Bridge'. Part, however, appears incorrect, and might better relate to Exe Bridge (Griffith, F. M.)].

Sheldon, L., 1933, Devon Toll-Houses., 296 (Article in Serial). SDV341560.

Countess Wear bridge was included in a new Exeter Turnpike Act of 1773. Until 1760 the river at Countess Wear had been crossed by a dangerous ford. Bridge building must have been unsatisfactory and expensive, as one of the piers fell in 1772. In 1774 new piers were built, the bridge was reopened and tolls collected.

Henderson, C. + Jervoise, E., 1938, Old Devon Bridges, 67 (Monograph). SDV2296.

Countess Wear Bridge, on site of medieval ford. Built in 1770 to take place of ford. Present bridge is entirely modern with a plaque stating extensive widening and rebuilding in 1935-8. No indication of early ford. River is fairly shallow but wide at this point.

Radford, C. + Radford, C. A. R., 1949, Nineteenth Report on Ancient Monuments, 50 (Article in Serial). SDV25123.

Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division, 1982, SX98NW1 (Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division Card). SDV25124.

Site visit 16th September 1982. The present bridge is 14.0 metres wide with 5 cutwaters and refuges, and 6 arches. It is mainly of limestone, with dressed sandstone pier bases and parapet cappings.

Lowe, M. C., 1990, The Turnpike Trusts in Devon and their roads: 1753-1889, 61 (Article in Serial). SDV25125.

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2000, Countess Wear Bridge (Correspondence). SDV322048.

Scheduled Monument Consent granted, subject to conditions, for works concerning the installation of a galvanised steel pedestrian guard rail along the footway which crosses the bridge.

Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2001, Countess Wear Bridge (Correspondence). SDV25121.

Scheduled Monument Consent granted subject to conditions for works concerning the reconstruction of failed areas of carriageway and a complete wearing course overlay of the existing carriageway.

Green, C., 2013, Countess Wear Bridge, Exeter: Desk Based Assessment and Historic Building Recording (Report - Assessment). SDV361456.

Context One Archaeological Services Ltd (COAS) carried out an archaeological programme of works comprising a desk-based assessment and historic building recording survey at Countess Wear Bridge, Exeter, Devon.
The Countess Wear Bridge was constructed in 1770 to replace an earlier ford. The six-span bridge was widened on the southern side in the 1930s. The bridge has been Grade II listed since 2004 when it was de-scheduled as an Ancient Monument.
Archaeological programme of works undertaken in advance of the construction of a cantilevered cycle/walkway on the upstream elevation. Four different types of construction were observed within the upstream elevation relating to a minimum of two building phases. The original fabric of the 1770 bridge survives in the central and lower part of the elevation.
In conclusion, the top section of the elevation (parapet, refuges and coping) entirely dates to 1935-38 however the rebuild retains the triangular shape of the original cutwaters which extended to the top of the original parapet.

Green, C & Tabor, R., 2014, Context One in Devon 2013, 10 (Article in Serial). SDV360665.

The bridge encompasses four different types of construction, and a minimum of two building phases. The oldest part of the bridge, dating to 1770, is still present in the central and lower parts of the elevation. The widening of the bridge during 1935-38 is apparent though the use of red sandstone amongst limestone rubble facing, which contrasts to older work that only utilizes limestone. The devision between old and new is apparent at 15m below the parapet and the red concrete coping is either part of work during 1935-38 or post dates it.

Pink, F., 2014, South Devon Coast Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey Desk-Based Assessment (Interpretation). SDV357736.

Green, C., 2016, Countess Wear Bridge, Exeter, Devon, Historic Building Recording (Report - Survey). SDV360337.

The original fabric of the late 18th century bridge survives in the lower parts of three cutwaters, employing light cream-coloured ashlar below the level of the arch springers and for the arch piers. The documented collapse of one of the piers in 1772 and the subsequent building of new piers was not evident archaeologically. The arch voussoirs and barrel arches are of red sandstone ashlar and thought to be original. Limestone rubble is utilized for the spandrels and directly above the voussoirs of the small arches, together with the central sections of the cutwaters. This fabric was thought to be original although it was suggested that the change in construction between the lower and central sections of the cutwaters may indicate a different phase.
The division between the 1935-38 parapet and the 18th century work was visible along the entire elevation. As suggested by the 2013 survey, the line of the division was slightly undulating. This ran just above the arch voussoirs on either side of CW1, before rising towards CW2 and continuing at a fairly even level throughout the remainder of the elevation.
The masonry above the wide arch but beneath the re-built parapet differs in character to the other arches, containing fairly regularly spaced red sandstone blocks in addition to the grey limestone which dominates the 18th century rubble facing throughout the remainder of the bridge (Plates 6 & 7). This is indicative of an earlier phase of re-facing.
The second phase of historic building recording at Countess Wear Bridge has confirmed the location of the division between the re-built 1935-38 parapet, although close inspection of the masonry revealed this is slightly more irregular than was evident from observations made in 2013 from the river bank. The undulations no doubt result from re-facing to various degrees beneath the base of the re-built parapet, with the southwest end of the elevation having the deepest re-construction.
Unsurprisingly, there is evidence of minor repair and re-facing elsewhere on the elevation. It was noted during the first phase of historic building recording that the random rubble walling of the spandrels and masonry above was constructed of limestone, with red sandstone seemingly reserved for the arch voussoirs and barrel arches. Detailed inspection of the walls generally confirms this view, with the presence of occasional red sandstone amongst the 18th century work probably relating to sporadic repair. However, the spandrels above the wide elliptical arch, and the masonry below the re-built parapet, contains regularly spaced red sandstone blocks amongst the grey limestone. This perhaps suggests a previous episode of re-facing. There is a strip consisting of smaller pieces of rubble in the area beneath the parapet between CW1 and CW2, possibly hinting at some previous work. Interestingly, both this patch and the wide elliptical arch are located above cutwaters identified in 2013 as having been re-faced.
As in 2013, there was no evidence in the elevation to identify the location of the documented collapse of one of the piers in 1772. It is likely this would require investigation of the underside of the barrel arches, which may in the future reveal a great deal about the phasing of the bridge. Nevertheless, the historic building recording carried out as part of this project has now confirmed the existence of five different types of construction to the upstream elevation as opposed to the four types identified during the first phase of works. These relate to at least three phases of activity comprising the original 18th century fabric, three area of refacing (namely two of the cut-waters, the rubble patch, and the spandrels and masonry above the wide elliptical arch), and the 1935-38 parapet.

1st Line Defence, 2016, Detailed Unexploded Ordnance Threat Assessment. Exeter Bridge Road, 13.2.3-6, Annex M (Report - Assessment). SDV360967.

Both Countess Wear Bridge and the Countess Wear Swing Bridge were utilised for training in preparation for the allied assault on Pegasus Bridge, as part of the D Day landings.
The two bridges, one over a river, the other over a canal, were a replica of the bridges in Normandy and, therefore, the ideal location for practicing the assault. Training, using live ordnance, took place in May 1944. In the event, the capture of the bridges in France was a complete success with both being taken in just 10 minutes with comparatively few casualties.
See report for more information.

Ordnance Survey, 2017, MasterMap (Cartographic). SDV359962.

Monument based on this source.

Historic England, 2017, National Heritage List for England, 1390895 (National Heritage List for England). SDV359963.

Countess Wear Bridge. Road bridge over River Exe. 1770; widened 1935-8. Limestone rubble with red sandstone arch rings and parapet coping; concrete widening faced in limestone rubble and red sandstone to harmonise with the original bridge. 6-span bridge widened on the south east downstream side. Segmental arches and wider elliptical central arch. On the piers between the arches there are cutwaters on both sides, rising up to refuges in the parapets. The Countess of Devon constructed a weir across the River Exe on this site in 1286. In 1768-9 an Act was passed authorising the bridge, which was built in 1770.
Date first listed: 4th June 2004

Passmore, M., 2019, The Bridges at Countess Wear, Exeter (Leaflet). SDV363121.

The road bridge over the river and the swing bridge over the Exeter Canal were used for training troops in May 1944 prior to D-Day, as their layout is similar to bridges over the River Orne and Caen Canal in Normandy. It was vital to the success of the mission that the Normandy bridges were captured and held to prevent their destruction by enemy forces. The capture of the bridges, code-named Operation Deadstick, was carried out in an airborne assault by the Second Battalion the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry who were landed close by the bridges in Horsa personnel-carrying gliders. The French river bridge was later renamed Horsa Bridge and the canal bridge, Pegasus Bridge, from the emblem of the airborne forces.
A plaque adjacent to the Exeter swing bridge, commemmorating the event, was unveiled in July 1994.

National Monuments Record, 2020, Pastscape, 447882 (Website). SDV363416.

Countess Wear Bridge was built about 1770, to take the place of a ford. It has seven arches with a total span of about 80 yards and a roadway about 13ft wide. One pier of the bridge collapsed in 1772. New piers were built and the bridge re-opened in 1774 (Henderson and Jervoise, Old Devon Bridges, 1938 67-8 ; Sheldon in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 65, 1933, 296).
W. H. Thomson (Devon Survey 1932, 40) states that the bridge dates from the early 16th century. Rebuilt later, it now has five segmental arches and one large arch for navigation. It has cutwaters and refuges and a width of 15 feet.
The bridge was re-built between 1936-8 (DOE (HHR) St Thomas Devon Sept 1949 73).
The present bridge is 14m wide with five cutwaters and refuges, and six arches. It appears to be built mainly of limestone, with dressed sandstone pier bases and parapet cappings. The underside of the arches reveal at least three phases, the latest addition on the south side, which has more than doubled the bridge width. The difference of over 200 years for the original construction of the bridge between that stated by Sheldon and that by Thomson could not be resolved (OSA field investigators comments, 16th September 1982).

Sources / Further Reading

SDV2296Monograph: Henderson, C. + Jervoise, E.. 1938. Old Devon Bridges. Old Devon Bridges. Unknown. 67.
SDV25114Schedule Document: Ancient Monuments. Countess Wear Bridge. Foolscap. 137.
SDV25121Correspondence: Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 2001. Countess Wear Bridge. Scheduled Monument Consent Letter. Letter.
SDV25123Article in Serial: Radford, C. + Radford, C. A. R.. 1949. Nineteenth Report on Ancient Monuments. Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 81. A5 Hardback. 50.
SDV25124Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division Card: Ordnance Survey Archaeology Division. 1982. SX98NW1. OSAD Card.
SDV25125Article in Serial: Lowe, M. C.. 1990. The Turnpike Trusts in Devon and their roads: 1753-1889. Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 122. A5 Paperback. 61.
SDV322048Correspondence: Department for Culture, Media and Sport. 2000. Countess Wear Bridge. Scheduled Monument Consent Letter. Letter.
SDV341560Article in Serial: Sheldon, L.. 1933. Devon Toll-Houses.. Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 65. A5 Hardback. 296.
SDV357736Interpretation: Pink, F.. 2014. South Devon Coast Rapid Coastal Zone Assessment Survey Desk-Based Assessment. AC Archaeology Report. ACD618/4/3. Digital.
Linked documents:1
SDV359962Cartographic: Ordnance Survey. 2017. MasterMap. Ordnance Survey Digital Mapping. Digital. [Mapped feature: #61355 ]
SDV359963National Heritage List for England: Historic England. 2017. National Heritage List for England. Historic Houses Register. Digital. 1390895.
SDV360337Report - Survey: Green, C.. 2016. Countess Wear Bridge, Exeter, Devon, Historic Building Recording. Context One Archaeological Services. C1/SBR/16/CWE. Digital.
SDV360665Article in Serial: Green, C & Tabor, R.. 2014. Context One in Devon 2013. Devon Archaeological Society Newsletter. 119. A4 Stapled + Digital. 10.
SDV360967Report - Assessment: 1st Line Defence. 2016. Detailed Unexploded Ordnance Threat Assessment. Exeter Bridge Road. 1st Line Defence. 2975JF00. Digital. 13.2.3-6, Annex M.
SDV361456Report - Assessment: Green, C.. 2013. Countess Wear Bridge, Exeter: Desk Based Assessment and Historic Building Recording. Context One Archaeological Services Report. COAS/SBR/12/CWE. Digital.
Linked documents:1
SDV363121Leaflet: Passmore, M.. 2019. The Bridges at Countess Wear, Exeter. Number 54. Digital.
SDV363416Website: National Monuments Record. 2020. Pastscape. https://www.pastscape.org.uk/. Website. 447882.

Associated Monuments

MDV78058Related to: Countess Wear Swing Bridge, Exeter (Monument)

Associated Finds: none recorded

Associated Events

  • EDV7341 - Historic Building Recording - Countess Wear Bridge, Exeter (Ref: C1/SBR/16/CWE)
  • EDV7574 - Desk Based Assessment and Historic Building Recording: Countess Wear Bridge, Exeter, Devon (Ref: COAS/SBR/12/CWE)

Date Last Edited:May 15 2020 1:03PM